Historic routes to Makkah symbolize Hajj pilgrims’ devotion to their faith

Pilgrims, seen here on Hajj in 1948, have traveled down the ages, building communication link between Islamic cities and kingdoms. (AFP)
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Updated 06 July 2022

Historic routes to Makkah symbolize Hajj pilgrims’ devotion to their faith

  • Muslims reached Makkah using four main routes that recall perilous journeys of pilgrims down the ages
  • Modern travel has made these routes obsolete, but many of them overlap with today’s roads and highways

JEDDAH: For centuries, millions of Muslim pilgrims have undertaken long-distance journeys to the city of Makkah to perform Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. Well-established routes crossed the vast Arabian Desert and followed traditional paths from the far east to the north and west of the peninsula, surviving the test of time.

The ancient Hajj land routes from the neighboring regions materialized over time as a result of favored commercial routes and cultural and commercial exchanges. These centuries-old and deeply rooted cultural and religious traditions constitute one of Islamic civilization’s most important material vestiges. 

Pilgrims travelled for months in caravans and convoys of camels, horses, and donkeys, stopping at wells, pools, dams, and stations installed by passers-by, following some of the most famous Hajj routes in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims before them to fulfil the spiritual journey of a lifetime. 

“And proclaim to the people that Hajj; they will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every distant pass.” Qur’an 22:27.

Scholars believe that five main routes reached Makkah; others say there could be up to six or seven, but they are considered secondary routes. The primary four are the northeastern Kufi route, known as Darb Zubaidah, the Ottoman or Shami (Levantine) route, the northwestern African or Egyptian route, and the southern and southeastern Yemeni and Omani land and sea routes, also called the Indian Ocean route. 

Stretching more than 1,400 km through present-day Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the Kufi route was used as a path to Makkah even in the pre-Islamic age. Also known as the Zubaidah trail, it runs from the Iraqi city of Kufa to Makkah, passing through Najaf and Al-Thalabiyya to the village of Fayd in central Arabia.

The trail then diverts west to Madinah and southwest to Makkah, passing through the vast and treacherous desert sands of the Empty Quarter, Madain Ban Sulaym and Dhat Irk before reaching Makkah. 

Historians believe the Zubaidah trail was named after Zubaidah bin Jafar, wife of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, for both her charitable work and the number of stations she ordered to be established along the trail. The ancient path was also a known trade route, gaining increased importance and flourishing in the days of the Abbasid Caliphate between 750-1258 A.D. 

The trail is a candidate site for entry into UNESCO’s World Heritage list, similar to the Egyptian route, which also attracted the attention of Muslim rulers throughout history. These rulers established structures on the path such as pools, canals and wells.  

Some of the routes to Makkah stretch back to the pre-Islamic age, while Zubaidah well (right) has refreshed pilgrims and residents of Makkah for more than 1,255 years. (Universal History Archive/AFP)

They also built barricades, bridges, castles, forts and mosques. Researchers have discovered numerous Islamic inscriptions and commemorative writings engraved on rocks by pilgrims as they traveled along the road as a reminder of their Hajj journey. 

With time, these structures mostly deteriorated or were destroyed by raids, but many of them have left behind remnants which shed light on the history and heritage of Arabia. 

From the west, the Egyptian Hajj trail benefited the masses of Muslim pilgrims from Egypt, Sudan, Central Africa, Morocco, Andalusia, and Sicily who journeyed via Cairo. The trail travels through the Sinai to Aqaba, where a fork in the road separates the route into two. The first split is a desert trail that heads toward the holy city of Madinah and vast valleys towards Makkah. The other is a coastal trail that follows the Red Sea through Dhuba, Wajh, and Yanbu, then heads east to Khulais and onwards to the southeast, reaching Makkah. 

The course of this trail changed through time, depending on political circumstances and technological development, and at one point in time, it crisscrossed with the Ottoman or Shami trail. 

Perhaps one of the most well-documented journeys of Hajj can be found in the manuscripts of Moroccan scholar and explorer Ibn Battuta, which depict the journey through copious illustrations and notes. 

Propelled by the quest for adventure and knowledge, Ibn Battuta left his hometown of Tangier in 1325. He took the African route, traveling by land along the Mediterranean coastline toward Egypt and seizing an opportunity to acquire knowledge of religion and law and meet with other Muslim scholars. 

The sacred shrine of Islam in the courtyard of Masjid Al-Haram (Sacred Mosque) at Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Engraving from Mouradgea d'Ohsson, Paris, France, 1790. (Photo: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Over a year after the start of his journey, Ibn Battuta took a road less traveled through the Nile Delta in Egypt to the Red Sea port of Aydhad, and from there by ship to Jeddah on the other side of the Red Sea coast. His travels took him to Jerusalem, then Damascus, before finally joining a caravan of pilgrims following the Levant trail in 1326. 

Connecting the Levant to Makkah and Madinah, the trail starts in Damascus, cuts through Daraa, then passes through Dhat Hajj north of Tabuk, Al-Hijr, and Madain Saleh, then on to Madinah. Pilgrims from the north often stayed in the holy city, visiting the Prophet’s Mosque before continuing their journey to Makkah. Many pilgrims returning through the route settled in Madinah for generations to come, and would welcome passing caravans from their homelands.

Since ancient times, Yemeni routes have linked the cities of Aden, Taiz, Sanaa, and Saada to the Hijaz region of western Saudi Arabia — one trail adjacent to the coast, and another passing through the southern highlands of the Asir mountains. Though it could be considered a main route alongside the Yemeni route, the Oman trail, believed to be secondary, saw pilgrims travel from Oman along the coast of the Arabian Sea to Yemen. 

With time, facilities designed to ease the pilgrims’ journeys supplied water and provided protection along these roads to Makkah and Madinah.

Funded by rulers and wealthy patrons, the routes from Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and East Asia remained for centuries. No traveler journeyed empty-handed, as some carried goods with which to pay their way, and others bore local news that they shared among the provinces.

This file picture taken on May 26, 2021 shows a fragment of the Kiswa, the cloth used to cover the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Makkah, the final one provided by Egypt (in 1961) during the administration of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, on display at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC). (AFP)

For generations, scholars have made their journeys towards the city, bringing along their concepts and ideas, contributing to scientific enterprise, and documenting the trip, noting the historical and cultural significance of the pilgrimage. Many of these scholars stayed in Makkah. Others settled in Madinah or headed north to such important Islamic cities as Kufa, Jerusalem, Damascus and Cairo to continue their studies.

Before the 19th century and the modern age of travel, these journeys would have been long and perilous. Though the actual ritual has remained unchanged in more than 1,300 years, the hardships and means of reaching the city of Makkah have eased and changed beyond recognition, with jets flying people in, buses and cars replacing camels, and Hajj bookings made with the help of the internet.

The routes died out barely half a century ago but they are well documented and preserved in memory as they symbolize the hardships pilgrims went through to perform the Hajj. They will forever preserve the spiritual footsteps of millions of devout Muslims on their climactic journeys.

Pilgrims far and wide have shared a spiritual desire that has brought masses of pilgrims across oceans, deserts and continents, just as it remains to this day and grows with each passing year.


Saudi Arabia will now allow visitors holding tourist visas to perform Umrah – Hajj ministry

Updated 12 August 2022

Saudi Arabia will now allow visitors holding tourist visas to perform Umrah – Hajj ministry

  • 49 nations eligible under the new rules
  • Booking online or on arrival, says ministry

JEDDAH: The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has announced that the Kingdom will now allow visitors holding tourist visas to perform Umrah.

Citizens of 49 countries will be able to do so by securing their visas online at Visit Saudi Arabia, or immediately on arrival at airports.

The decision has been taken to allow as many people as possible to perform the ritual.

Those who qualify include holders of visas to the US and the UK, as well as those who have Schengen visas.

The regulations allow visitors to obtain a tourist visa, valid for 12 months, to visit other cities in the Kingdom.

Those who have family visit visas are allowed to perform Umrah, by booking through the Eatmarna app.

To perform Umrah, visitors are required to obtain comprehensive health insurance, which includes covering the costs of COVID-19 treatment, accidents resulting in death or disability, and expenses arising from flight delays or cancellations.

Those wishing to perform Umrah from nations other than those who currently qualify, should apply for visas at the Kingdom’s embassies in their countries.

Documents required include proof of residence and employment, return ticket, bank statement proving financial stability, itinerary, and complete personal information.

Beit Hail in Saudi Arabia’s north showcases local heritage

Updated 12 August 2022

Beit Hail in Saudi Arabia’s north showcases local heritage

  • Ancient Thamudic and Sadu embroidery on display

HAIL: The Beit Hail 15-day festival was launched on Wednesday showcasing local heritage including incense burners, daggers, wicker baskets, and clothes with ancient Thamudic and Sadu embroidery.

Dep. Gov. of Hail Prince Faisal bin Fahd inaugurated the event at Aja Park with the undersecretary of the region, Adel bin Saleh Al-Sheikh, and other officials.

Prince Faisal toured the site and visited the exhibition of the late artist Youssef Al-Shagdali.

The festival also features classic cars and popular, colorful handicrafts created by the region’s artisans.

There were also stalls that showed how cloth is woven and transformed into clothing.

Visitors were entertained by a folklore troupe performing the Saudi Arda.

The event aims to support local talent and boost small businesses.



The Line city impresses Makkah governor, plans to book first 

Updated 12 August 2022

The Line city impresses Makkah governor, plans to book first 

  • Prince Khaled Al-Faisal visited the design expo at Jeddah Superdome
  • He was briefed on innovations to alleviate environmental challenges

JEDDAH: The architecture of the futuristic city, The Line, has impressed Makkah Gov. Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, who says he will be the first to book an accommodation once it is complete.

Prince Khalid made the remarks in a tweet following his visit to the NEOM exhibition to see the designs on Wednesday at the Jeddah Superdome.

The governor toured the exhibition that showcases the architectural innovations of the city.

He was also briefed on how the city would help alleviate the critical environmental challenges facing humanity.

Last month, The Line’s designs were revealed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

They showed the most important features of The Line, which is 200 meters wide, 170 kilometers long, and 500 meters high. It will eventually house 9 million people and have a 34 square kilometer footprint.

It will take up less land than other cities of comparable capacity and help to conserve 95 percent of NEOM’s land.

The Line imagines a future without streets, cars or emissions. It will be powered entirely by renewable energy and prioritize health and well-being over transportation and infrastructure.

The exhibition showcases all these aspects of the city. It opened on Aug. 1 and will be taken to other locations from Aug. 14, including Riyadh and the Eastern Province.

It offers 50 guided tours a day in Arabic and English.

Hand-woven Japanese silk fabric artisans turn attention to Saudi Arabia

Updated 12 August 2022

Hand-woven Japanese silk fabric artisans turn attention to Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: Kyoto-based Okamoto Orimono Co., Ltd. (branded as Nishijin Okamoto) has worked to provide rare silk fabrics since the Meiji era, and have carried on the techniques and traditions of Nishijin textiles for over 100 years, across four generations.

Nishijin Okamoto is one of the few remaining weaving companies carrying on the historic culture of Nishijin and Kyoto, and the company is offering innovative silk fabrics that will impress the wearer.

Ema Okamoto, textile designer and managing director of Nishijin Okamoto, spoke to Arab News Japan, saying, “I grew up as a child amid the sounds of the machines, the winding threads, and the bustle of the craftsmen in the house and workshop. This atmosphere of the Nishijin workshop is my origin and my life.”

“The people of Saudi Arabia, like us, cherish their roots and as they live their lives. I got a lot of inspi- ration from the regional symbols they showed us wherever we went,” Okamoto said, expressing interest in creating “a traditional collaboration between Saudi Arabia and Japan.”


Outgoing Danish ambassador reflects on his time in Saudi Arabia

Updated 12 August 2022

Outgoing Danish ambassador reflects on his time in Saudi Arabia

  • Ole Emil Moesby is leaving the Kingdom after five years as his country’s envoy to the region

RIYADH: Denmark’s ambassador in Saudi Arabia, Ole Emil Moesby, will bid the Kingdom farewell at the end of his tour of duty in Riyadh later this month.

“From the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you,” he told Arab News. “I’ve had a fantastic time here — you usually get more or less emotional when you have to change, but if you are a diplomat, you’re quite used to it changing from one place to the other.

“I can’t think of any time when I felt this — that I am leaving something behind here — which I will miss because the way I’ve been treated and inspired, and the way I’ve been communicating with people, has been extraordinary,” Moesby said.

“The experience I have had has been fantastic, so my message is: Thank you.”

Ambassador Ole Emil Moesby paying a courtesy call to King Salman. (Supplied)

Moesby has been the ambassador of Denmark to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Yemen since Sept. 5, 2017, and his final day of service is Aug. 31.

Talking to Arab News, Moesby highlighted some of his fondest memories in the Kingdom, where he has spent five years, from interacting with the local community and traveling, to being enriched by the culture and heritage of Saudi Arabia.

“It’s been a fantastic time to experience the development and the changes which I have seen in Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“AlUla of course has developed extremely (well) … But even places like Yanbu or Jeddah have actually changed a lot. Not to mention, of course, Riyadh.

Balancing on the "Edge of the World", the Jebel Fihrayn which features 300-meter-high cliffs. It is part of Riyadh's Tuwaiq escarpment. (Supplied)

“It’s actually been interesting to see also how the development has changed attitudes and culture in these places, but yet, at the other side, have actually maintained the heritage of these places,” Moesby explained.

The ambassador witnessed many changes, including the opening of movie theaters in the Kingdom and the lifting of the ban on women driving in 2018.

“I think it’s been fantastic to see that development,” said the envoy. “I have been (here) in a period where I have been for premiers of films in the cinemas, and before … my staff here, which is mainly women, were actually being brought to the embassy in the morning — now they actually drive themselves,” he added.

“So instead of having a problem of traffic, as we had before, we now have a parking problem,” the ambassador joked.

“That’s a fantastic development, and which I will take with me in my memories when I leave.”

The ambassador had also been to Ithra, Ithra, the iconic King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dhahran, which was built by Saudi Aramco. (Supplied)

Moebsy explained that he has also been a dedicated Arab News reader, making sure to pick up the newspaper every morning to catch up on events.

“Everything has actually changed since Sept. 5, 2017. So every day, Arab News has actually told me what is happening here. And it’s been a fantastic experience because of the changes that you have seen here,” he said.

The ambassador highlighted the ways his mission has strengthened bilateral relations between Denmark and Saudi Arabia through embassy-led initiatives and collaborations.

“As an ambassador, you have to understand what is happening in Saudi Arabia, and you have to convey that to people in Denmark, and you have to make people in Saudi Arabia understand what the thinking is in Denmark. That’s the way to develop a bilateral relationship,” he said.

Most of his efforts have been to put into trade, developing business partnerships, and promoting cultural exchanges.

One of these efforts was hosting a women’s football tournament in Saudi Arabia with 28 teams from all over the Kingdom, called the Global Goals World Cup.

“We’ve been very active in setting up football for females. The tournament that we had was a big success … because it also demonstrated the role that females can play in sports events,” he said.

In February, the embassy hosted celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and the ambassador invited young female Saudi artists to paint a picture of the queen to mark the event.

“It’s an amazing development of cultural abilities and possibilities in Saudi Arabia that can happen. And for the queen in Denmark, she would see that as a good signal of the long-term good relations that we have between Saudi Arabia and Denmark,” Moesby said.

Ambassador Ole Emil Moesby has visited the ancient city of Al-'Ula, an archaeological wonder located in the northwestern region of Madinah. (Supplied)

He concluded his interview by leaving a message to his successor, Liselotte Kjaersgaard Plesner, who will be the next ambassador.

“My successor, she is one of our top diplomats in the Danish service,” Moesby said.

“I just hope she can just be half as happy as I am in being here, (then) I will be more than happy.

“An important message to say to her is that the perceptions that we sometimes all are under in Europe or Denmark, and in the US, you can’t get close to the reality unless you have seen it yourself,” he said.

The ambassador added that people should not form their opinions of a country without examining it and being a part of the culture first.

“You have to come here. You have to live here. You have to understand and communicate with people here, otherwise, it won’t happen,” he said.